Sunday, 21 June 2009

Insane wishful thinking # 3009 . Realism 101

I’m reproducing this from the New Statesman, which is scarcely a source of comfort for conservatives, though it’s often a treasure trove of material for fisking and extreme hilarity.

I’m not quite sure that to make of Asma Barlas’ thoughts. Given the name of the institutions for which she works and her academic history, it’s easy to discount what she writes as politically correct fluff at best and dangerous shilling for a great threat at worst.

However, goodwill and the desire for a better world are not monopolies of the Right and sometimes it does me good to see another side's opinion for a change.

Much of the Right’s criticism of liberals comes not from disapproval of their original motives -I wrote ‘Much’; not 'all'! - or of the moral hope enshrined in their desired outcomes, but from our conviction that their misconceptions and optimism cloud their judgement so badly that they're incapable of analysing the real world, and so their prescriptions are pretty much guaranteed to be wrong.

So what kind of thing is her opinion, do you think?

A ray of hope in a dark world? Insane wishful thinking? A very, very long shot? Seeking nuggets of gold in a midden? Liberal candy-coating of a dark and deadly threat? All of the above?

You decide.

Islam and feminism.

Asma Barlas

I have been asked to write about how feminism informs my understanding of faith and if and how faith influences my feminist views. I’ve discussed the intersection between Islam and feminism many times before and every time I have clarified that I do not like to call myself a feminist; yet, the label continues to stick!

The truth is that long before I learned about feminism, I had begun to glimpse a message of sexual equality in the Qur’an. Perhaps this is paradoxical given that all the translations and interpretations that I read growing up were by men and given that I was born and raised in Pakistan, a society that can hardly be considered egalitarian. Yet, the Qur’an’s message of equality resonated in the teaching that women and men have been created from a single self and are each other’s guides who have the mutual obligation to enjoin what is right and to forbid what is wrong.

But, then, there are those other verses that Muslims read as saying that men are better than women and their guardians and giving men the right to unfettered polygyny and even to beat a recalcitrant wife. To read the Qur’an in my youth was thus to be caught up in a seemingly irresolvable and agonizing dilemma of how to reconcile these two sets of verses not just with one another but also with a view of God as just, consistent, merciful, and above sexual partisanship.

It has taken the better part of my life to resolve this dilemma and it has involved learning (from the discipline of hermeneutics) that language--hence interpretation—is not fixed or transparent and that the meanings of a text change depending on who interprets it and how. From reading Muslim history, on the other hand, I discovered that Qur’anic exegesis became more hostile to women only gradually and as a result of shifts in religious knowledge and methodology as well as in the political priorities of Muslim states. And, from feminism, I got the language to speak about patriarchy and sexual equality. In other words, it was all these universes of knowledge that enabled me to encounter the Qur’an anew and to give voice to my intuition that a God who is beyond sex/ gender has no investment in favoring males or oppressing women either.

Most Muslims, however, are unconvinced by this argument and it may be because viewing God’s speech (thus also God) as patriarchal allows the conservatives to justify male privilege and many progressive Muslims to advocate for secularism on the grounds that Islam is oppressive. As for me, I continue to respond to the Qur’an’s call to use my reason and intellect to decipher the signs (ayat) of God. Thus far, such an exercise has only brought me to more liberatory understandings of the text itself.

Asma Barlas is professor of Politics and director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, New York.

I’m away on Monday and Tuesday at a funeral.

For those who know me as a harsh critic of Islam as we often meet it in the news (causing terrorism and inflicting brutality on, for example, the peoples of Gaza, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, the Philippines, etc.), and who might be genuinely curious as to where all this comes from, the New English Review this month has a symposium on Islam.

It contains a valuable range of viewpoints and topics: about the faith itself and how it looks at the rest of the world; about the history of the phenomenon as both a political and a religious belief system; about how followers of its worst aspects ply their trade in the West and in Islamic countries alike, and a number of carefully-researched reflections on how our civilisation meets and deals with Islam as a neighbour and as a settler within our lands.

It is both scholarly and up-to-date political analysis at the same time and is probably the best concentration of clear, complex and fearless academic reportage that I’ve found in a single site for a long time.

Its peers for comparison, and which I also recommend, are: The Religion of Peace which presents daily digests of Islam in the news and ongoing features about Islamic scholarship, beliefs, and practises; Jihad Watch which monitors the most aggressive tendencies within Islamic theology and politics both historic and contemporary; The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) which presents a digest of what is being said by and about Islam and Islamic countries and Arab politics – a ‘raw data’ source for the open-minded; Daniel Pipes’ site is both an academic and an opinion blog; and finally Front Page Magazine a rolling comment and analysis site which concentrates on political Islam in the USA and abroad and which often discusses modern-day Islam in the context of its intellectual and spiritual foundations and history.

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